The inclusion of the Tallis Scholars in Princeton’s 2011 holiday season concerts has a double significance. First, when it comes to musical performance, we can sample the substance of pioneers in bringing a cappella Renaissance polyphony music to concert halls throughout the world. The Tallis Scholars’ stats rival any rock star: more than 1,600 concerts and more than 50 commercially available recordings. The 10-member vocal group, whose first performance was in 1973, sings Monday, December 12, at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus.
Second, when it comes to Princeton’s musical life, the performance heralds a new era of collaboration between McCarter Theater and the Princeton University Concerts series. Both presenters stand behind the December 12 Tallis concert. Bill Lockwood, McCarter’s special programming director, who has been associated with the venue for half a century, attributes the change of direction to Marna Seltzer’s taking command as director of the Princeton University Concert Office in September, 2010. To Lockwood joint sponsorship is self evident. “It is appropriate for the two major concert presenting organizations in Princeton to collaborate,” he says in a phone interview from his McCarter office. (Lockwood, a member of Princeton’s Class of ’59, booked his first concert at McCarter when he was a senior.)
“Marna’s arrival made this possible. It opened the door to collaboration and cooperation between the two at long last. Her predecessor was not interested. It’s light years of difference — just what the doctor ordered.”
Lockwood’s praise of Seltzer is a bouquet of heartfelt endorsement. “At last there’s somebody from the music world who knows the business and is a breath of fresh air. We’re two organizations sharing artistic riches. Marna brings an enlightened view of music to Princeton. A rising tide floats all the boats.
“Two heads are better than one,” Lockwood adds, cheerfully mixing metaphors, “since we’re both concerned about growing audiences and keeping the audiences we have. We have two horses pulling together; it brings better results. It’s nice having a kindred spirit in town. We talk all the time and share information.”
The pattern of cooperation began last season with the performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at McCarter. “One of us includes the concert as part of the regular season. The other makes it available as a bonus,” Lockwood says.
The arrangement provides flexibility. Officially, the Tallis Scholars performance is part of McCarter’s season, and a bonus for Princeton University Concerts. “The fact that the Tallis concert is in December, being a Christmas program, rules out a performance at McCarter. We cannot schedule a concert because we present Charles Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ all month. And Richardson is a terrific venue for a cappella choral music.”
Lockwood describes himself as “a huge fan of the Tallis Scholars. I became a fan early on,” he says. The December performance is the Scholars’ fourth in Princeton. Previous performances took place in 1991, 1996, and 2004.
Peter Phillips, founder and director of the Tallis Scholars, was available by telephone from his London home to talk about the Princeton program and the ensemble. Having returned to London on an overnight flight from Seattle, which arrived at 6 a.m. London time, he tucked in an 11 a.m. rehearsal before our 3:30 p.m. conversation. Conducting Renaissance music is not a restful occupation. Still, Phillips is chatty, playful, and given to going out of bounds.
“It’s a Christmas program,” he says about the December 12 event. “The Sweelinck ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ opens with blinding relevance to the theme of Christmas.
“The program is all in Latin,” he continues. “Every word. I chose music that refers to the Virgin Mary. Some of it is very obvious, like the Benjamin Britten, ‘Hymn to the Virgin.’”
Selecting Britten (1913-1976) as a composer for a Renaissance ensemble is puzzling. Phillips brushes off the anomaly. “I put him in there just to see what would happen,” Phillips says. “There are three Magnificats. We’re doing Magnificats by John Taverner, Hieronymus Praetorius, and Giovanni Palestrina. We’re also doing a piece by Arvo Part.”
Again I’m surprised. Part was born in 1935. “We’re doing quite a lot of Part at the moment. I think that he suits us very well. His style of writing is not in any way Renaissance, but there’s something in the unaccompanied vocal writing that suits my singers particularly well. We do very little contemporary music,” Phillips says. Still, the Tallis Scholars have commissioned pieces from contemporary composers. “If the composer accepts that we are an instrument, it works. With some composers, it doesn’t work. If we don’t like a commissioned piece, we sing it once, and that’s all.”
Phillips strives for a transparent sound in the Tallis Scholars, whether the music is contemporary or old. “The purity and clarity of sound depend on intonation, articulation, timbre of voices, and the blend between voices,” he says. “Getting voices to not stick out is important for the choral sound I seek. Some singers are born with the right kind of voice — not too operatic. Then there’s training.”
New members of the ensemble are selected without auditions. “If I need another singer,” Phillips says, “I listen out, and ask other people, or singers already in the group.”
The name of the ensemble honors Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). “For the first few concerts, we had no name,” says Phillips, who started the ensemble in 1973 when he was an Oxford undergraduate. About 1976 the name was selected. “We sang mostly English music and thought that Tallis represents what we wanted to do.” The “Scholars” part comes from the fact that the members of the group were undergraduates holding scholarships, which paid a small sum for performance at university chapels. The scholars attended Oxford or Cambridge and had various academic specialties.
“When the ensemble was formed, we were just having fun,” says Phillips. “I got music out of the music faculty music library and put on a concert with my friends. A cappella Renaissance ensembles at that time were rare. The first concert was almost exactly how it is now. There were nine singers in a semi circle, with me at the apex. There were women in the group.
“In the Renaissance the high voices were normally male — boys and castrati,” Phillips says. “They provided music for church services, not for concerts. We have five women and five men.” The music that the Tallis Scholars sing is primarily in five parts with two singers to a part. “The altos are one woman and one countertenor. My wife, Caroline Trevor, is the female alto in the group. Remarkably, she sings alto in St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir in London. She’s the first woman to be employed at a major English cathedral, ever.” A member of Tallis Scholars since 1982, Trevor is the longest-serving member of the ensemble. The couple’s 14-year-old son is the head chorister at the Chapel Royal, a body for whom Thomas Tallis served as organist under Queen Elizabeth I.
Phillips was born in 1953 in Southampton, England. His father served in the navy. His mother taught sports at a girls’ school. “She was tone deaf,” he says. When I express my skepticism of the concept of “tone deaf,” he doesn’t argue but simply contributes his own skepticism. “And I wonder about perfect pitch,” he asserts. Phillips’ sister is a Pentecostal priest, who incorporates music days into her church in the greater London area.
In addition to his leadership of the Tallis Scholars, Phillips is director of music at Merton College, Oxford. Merton, founded in 1264, has the oldest chapel at both Oxford and Cambridge. Phillips helped set up a choral foundation that began singing services there in October, 2008. “It was a very nervous moment,” he says. “We were starting from scratch.”
Phillips is the author of two books. “English Sacred Music 1549-1649” covers the century after Henry VIII’s break with the Papacy. “What We Really Do” deals with the ups and downs of touring as a musical ensemble devoted to polyphony.
In 1995 Phillips became the owner and publisher of the Musical Times, founded in 1844, and the oldest continuously published music journal in the world. About his role at the publication Phillips says, “I just pay the bills and see that it gets published and makes a profit.” The profit comes primarily from subscriptions of libraries.
Phillips’ articles can be seen in the British political and cultural weekly the Spectator, where he writes about both music and cricket.
Changing gears, Phillips’ trip to Seattle was for a personal business project. Along with a Seattle partner, he has bought an 80-foot wooden boat, built about 1930, to be used in connection with a lodge in Kodiak, Alaska. “As a teenager I had more to do with boats than with cricket,” he says. Who in the music world could have guessed?
The Tallis Scholars, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Monday, December 12, 8 p.m. “A Program for the Christmas Season” a co-presentation of McCarter Theater and Princeton University Concerts featuring the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music. Note location. $20 to $54. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.